Comparing Apples & Mushrooms

October 8, 2020Roger & Abi Lowther

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. . . . This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:5, 8)

An Alternate Paradigm for Healthy Church Growth

On Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2020, Grace City Church Tokyo celebrates its tenth anniversary. From the beginning, the church planting team attempted the impossible, to encourage a church-planting movement in the most expensive place, in the second largest unreached people group in the world. We did not want to plant just one church. We wanted to encourage the growth of many churches.

The team started thinking that church-planting perhaps best resembles the life cycle of an apple tree. As an apple tree grows big and healthy, it produces apples. When those apples are planted and nourished elsewhere, they grow into saplings. One day, those saplings too grow big enough to bear their own fruit and the life cycle continues. One cycle may take ten years. For churches in Japan, it has often taken more than twenty years for a church to reach a self-sufficient stage of reproduction.

There is a faster way to plant apple trees, through tree grafting. An entire branch of an apple tree bearing good fruit can be cut off and grafted somewhere else. Then there is a much shorter window of time between when the tree is grafted and bears new fruit, perhaps three years. In both cases, there is a mother-daughter relationship between the first apple tree and the new trees producing fruit.

But year after year, God sent pastors to our church or raised them up in our midst. We welcomed them as part of our community, offered what training we could, and helped them grow in leadership. Then when the time had come, we encouraged our best leaders and top givers to join them in starting a church somewhere else in the city. When thinking according to the church-planting model above, an obvious downside is that the “mother” tree loses a whole fruit-producing branch, and it is not easy to grow new branches.

While we rejoiced every time this happened, Grace City Church noticeably diminished in size and became weaker. One year, two churches started within months of each other, and we lost so many people that we had to cut back to just one worship service. We rejoice that we have seen ten churches start in these first ten years, and yet sometimes we feel more like Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree than a big healthy apple tree.

Grace City members sometimes complained. We felt the limitations of apple tree church planting. Was it really wise to keep cutting off branches every year? Maybe it was better to stop cutting off branches for a while and protect the tree?

I wonder. So many good things have happened. I see how the network has expanded. I see how new church leadership and new church ministries have begun. I see how various ministries not possible by any one church are happening. I see how leaders support one another, discuss together how best to do online worship during COVID-19, share events and facilities, and so much more. Even when individual churches do not show growth in numbers, the network grows steadily, and from that network, new churches are being born. As I look back over the past ten years, I believe we have been unknowingly working under a different paradigm than apple tree church planting. I think we have been growing mushrooms.

Growth of Mushrooms

There is a little supermarket next to my apartment in Tokyo full of more kinds of mushrooms than I can possibly remember—shiitake, enoki, maitake, nameko, eringi, tamogi, shimeji (including hon, buna, bunapi, and hatake shimeji), pioppino, matsutake, kuro awabitake, and kikurage. There is even one Western kind called “mushrooms,” which makes me laugh because in English we call all of them mushrooms! The Japanese language is so much more sensitive to the differences in flavor, texture, and shape because the dark, cool, humid environment of Japan is naturally suited to the growth of mushrooms.

Mushrooms are not planted in the traditional sense and do not come from other mushrooms. They pop up unpredictably as the “fruit” of a mass of long, microscopic fibers, usually invisible to the naked eye known as the mycelium network. These fibers act like superhighways carrying necessary moisture and nutrients.

Mushrooms do not come from seeds and cannot be grafted from one place to another. There is no mother-daughter relationship between mushrooms. Rather, they relate to each other like older and younger brothers and sisters, equally dependent on a common network. Without this network, no mushroom can survive on its own because it cannot receive the necessary nutrients to live and grow.

Grace City Church Tokyo’s 10 years of ministry seems to be more like mushroom cultivation than apple tree planting. Rather than being planted from one church, new churches seem to sprout up from this common mycelial network providing the nutrients and water needed for life.

Strength of a Network

There is something attractive about this mushroom model of church growth. Rather than measuring health in terms of numbers in worship or baptisms or giving in any one church, there is a broader view of what God is doing throughout the city.

We have seen such a mycelium network grow in Tokyo. What started as a handful of pastors has now grown to over 50 pastors and leaders from all over the city. Even during COVID-19, this group met online once a month to share news, receive training, discuss topics, and pray for one another.

The network spreads across the urban jungle to produce fruit not only as different churches but within different denominations as well. We have seen leaders not only grow and develop in the church but in the workplace and the arts as well. We have seen Servant and Leader Training (SALT) grow and develop leaders in church ministries. We have seen the LIGHT project grow and develop leaders in the workplace. We have seen Community Arts Tokyo grow and develop leaders in the arts. And this network continues to spread into locations and communities impossible to reach via traditional church planting methods.

Mushroom church planting is different than apple tree church planting. It requires more emphasis on networking, fertilizing, and sustaining the whole movement, and perhaps less emphasis on individual success. Its results are not quite as predictable. The network produces wonderful things in unexpected, and sometimes invisible, ways. However, through the power of God, new mushrooms are born in the darkness of the urban jungle. God gives all the water and the nutrients needed for our churches to grow and prosper, and many more mushrooms are born from the grace of God in building and sustaining our communities.

Do we not need more mushroom church growth in our cities?

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